Using a video game and Internet-based outreach, HopeLab helps teens manage chronic illnesses
Since the first kid opted for Castle Wolfenstein over kickball, parents have had plenty to say about the potential negative impact of video games on adolescents' health, from glassy-eyed apathy to weapons-wielding rebelliousness. But if the efforts of Palo Alto, CA-based HopeLab are an indication, an emerging breed of "social impact" games can both foster positive health transformations and retain the cool quotient of any must-have title.
Founded in 2001 by Pamela Omidyar, HopeLab is a nonprofit dedicated to merging cutting-edge scientific research with equally progressive interactive entertainment to improve the quality of life of young adults suffering from chronic illness.
In April 2006, HopeLab released its initial effort, Re-Mission, a PC-based, 3D "shooter" described by developers as "a cross between Tomb Raider and Fantastic Voyage." The game's hero, Roxxi, escorts young cancer patients on a 20-level journey through the human body, annihilating infectious cells with a cache of real-life "weapons" including chemotherapy and antibiotics.
According to HopeLab, young people with chronic illness - particularly those ages 13 to 21 - are an often-overlooked population at high risk for substandard health outcomes. That's because doctors and parents assume they are following prescribed treatment programs and being up-front about their symptoms. Unfortunately, HopeLab reports, teens being teens, many of them aren't.
"Re-Mission teaches them about their disease, about chemo, seeing the doctor, and how that directly impacts what's going on in their bodies," says Arlene Fairfield, managing partner at Seattle-based DDB Issues & Advocacy, HopeLab's AOR. "Kids start getting familiar with why it's important to adhere to their treatment regimen. Playing Re-Mission is something they would actually enjoy, [and that can] lead to improvements and the ability to manage their disease."
Statistics back this claim. "Research on Re-Mission was conducted in much the same way research into a new drug is conducted, with rigorous testing based on scientific principles," notes HopeLab president Pat Christen, in a statement.
Before the game's April 2 launch, HopeLab conducted the Re-Mission Outcomes Study, a trial run of 375 cancer-stricken young adults at 34 medical centers in the US, Canada, and Australia. Among study participants who were prescribed oral chemotherapy or antibiotics, those who played Re-Mission maintained higher levels of observance to medication regimens than those in the non-playing control group.
Still, Re-Mission would be of no use if kids didn't actually want to play. So while HopeLab worked closely with scientists and oncologists to ensure the game's biologic and medical accuracy, it also partnered with adolescents and interactive developers to guarantee its "gamer" appeal.
The game was developed by El Segundo, CA-based interactive entertainment studio Realtime Associates, the company behind such popular titles as Warlock and Return of the Jedi. Unlike those, however, Re-Mission doesn't cost $50 a pop. Available online in English, Spanish, and French, the game is free to any young person with cancer; others can purchase it for a suggested $20 donation.
To introduce Re-Mission, a PR campaign targeted medical-care providers and associations, patient advocacy groups, health and teen publications, and media in the study's 34 test cities, says Chrissy Faessen, account supervisor at DDB Issues & Advocacy. By early May, more than 300 international media outlets had covered the launch.
The most critical outreach, though, was toward the young players themselves. Even before Re-Mission's launch, Faessen says, mainstream game developers and distributor Web sites, including RealNetworks, PopCap, and Tangent, reacted by posting editorial reviews and pro bono banner ads. The buzz continued on MySpace, which featured a Roxxi profile page (she's a 20-year-old Libra) and a second page for the game. A complementary social networking community, Re-Mission.net, encourages teens with cancer to share information and overcome disease-influenced feelings of isolation.
In the six weeks after the game's release, HopeLab distributed more than 4,500 copies to individuals in 30 countries. And Re-Mission.net has averaged 2,400 unique visitors per day. But why has it been so successful? It's "the first video game to combine a scientific process with top-notch game play, design, and graphics," says Faessen.
And according to HopeLab, Re-Mission "bridges socioeconomic status, race, gender, [and] age." Plus, Re-Mission is economical: Not only did HopeLab leverage the Internet for promotion and distribution, but it developed the game not for a Halo 2-esque $40 million, but for less than $8 million.
While "social impact" games like Re-Mission currently make up only a small sector of the $25 billion US video game category, that sector is growing, according to Washington-based Serious Games Initiative. As such, HopeLab intends to apply its Re-Mission model to other illnesses, Faessen says, including "autism, obesity, sickle cell disease, and major depressive disorder."
Above all else, Re-Mission works, Fairfield stresses. "It's designed to be cool and edgy," she notes. "It stands up to other video games [kids] might be playing, but teaches them about what's happening in their bodies. It helps provide a sense of control over life."
AT A GLANCE
President: Pat Christen
Headquarters: Palo Alto, CA
Competitors: No direct competition, but the Make-A-Wish Foundation has a similar offering, Ben's Game
Key trade publications: SeriousGames.org, SocialImpactGames.com, Chronicle of Philanthropy
PR budget: Undisclosed
Global Communications Team
VP, research: Steve Cole, Ph.D.
VP, strategic initiatives: Ellen LaPointe
Marketing Services Agencies
PR: DDB Issues & Advocacy, Seattle
Advertising: DDB, Seattle